Sax , Nat Simpkins-Tenor Sax, Kermit
Ruffins -Trumpet, Wendell Brunious-Flugelhorn,
Jason Marsalis-Vibraphone, Tuba Fats-Tuba,
Thaddeus Richard-Piano, Roland Guerin-Bass,
Kevin Morris-Bass, Cecil Brooks III-Drums,
Jerry Anderson-Drums, Bill Summers-Congas
The Mayor of New Orleans
It wasn't a scorching, oppressive day at the fairgrounds,
and under the WWOZ Jazz Tent, there was even a breeze, everyone
was straining to get the best view possible of the stage,
where Kermit Ruffins and his Bar-B-Cue Swingers were laying
it down. It was May 2, 1999, the final Sunday of Jazzfest,
and Henri Smith remembers that day as a turning point in his
burgeoning singing career, a "momentous occasion."
He'd been singing with Kermit off and on since 1996, but was
best known for his duties as an Emcee, introducing Kermit
and the band before each show with his signature "You
Know Him, You Love Him" line. Always dapper, Henri brought
an air of elegance to Kermit's sets, but the Jazzfest set
was to be his biggest showcase as a vocalist.
"It was about 3:40, and Kermit's set ended at 3:55.
Kermit called me up to sing. I was a little surprised, but
I went up and sang "Work Song." I wasn't sure the
people were really into it, the crowd was sort of quiet, but
when we finished, there was this one lady in the center of
the tent, she just jumped up! And the rest of the crowd followed
her. I just couldn't believe my eyes. I never thought I'd
get a standing ovation!"
Since that day, the New Orleanian singer has received his
share of warm receptions from crowds as far away as San Francisco
and Lisbon. There's something genuine that comes across when
he performs, something that shone that day in the jazz tent.
It's an odd combination of vulnerability and confidence. He
made that same decision, to believe in himself, when it came
time to record. The ebullience, the presence that comes through
on this disc is remarkable when you consider that this is
Henri Smith's debut album. Working closely with Nat Simpkins
and Cecil Brooks III, Henri assembled an all-star team of
New Orleans' finest musicians for the session that produced
this record. Great care also went into the selection of tunes.
"I wanted the record to last, to be classic, and yet
to be done in a New Orleans style," he says, "I
want this to be a record of posterity. And the only way I
could achieve that was to have my friends on there, who feel
the same way I do."
Henri's "friends" are one hot aggregation. Each
member of the group is a pound-for-pound champ on his instrument,
legendary in the New Orleans scene, each with a slightly different
musical perspective. "We wanted to create a gumbo,"
says Simpkins, "to bring together people who hadn't recorded
together before, and to record some non traditional tunes,
to try to make the record attractive to people all over the
That's what Jazz is all about. You want to keep bringing
in new elements. "It crossed all barriers, all racial
lines, it was a conglomeration of musicians who love and respect
New Orleans music and Henri," says Conga player and bandleader
Bill Summers, "It was a family of musicians; there were
white musicians, black musicians, Creole musicians, all kinds
of musicians. He brought the community together musically."
And this was New Orleans, after all, so the vibe on the date
was, by all accounts, sublimely laid back. Donald Harrison,
recalls "When I got to the studio, it was like I'd arrived
at the biggest and best party. Everybody was there. We worked
as a team to get down what he was looking for, played, had
a great time. It's a soulful record with a soulful band from
a soulful man." Henri may have had some early stage fright,
but it's all but gone today. For his record, he had the guts
to put himself in some heavy company. "I had to be strong.
Here's all these great musicians, and they wanted to see what
I'm about too. I wanted to make a record for all times."
And he has. The music on this disc is universal, and, combined
with Henri's easy charisma, it will surely spread his appeal
far beyond New Orleans, where he's already well known. Cecil
Brooks III was amazed when he first hit the town with Henri,
who is warmly welcomed wherever he goes. "This cat is
the closest thing I've seen to an honest politician,"
laughs Brooks, "He's like the mayor of New Orleans, he
seems like he's a family member to everyone, and everyone
feels that way about him. And he's on the way to becoming
one of the great American singers."
By A. Francis Tritico, New Orleans Freelance Writer